HANOI, Vietnam (AP) -- The Vietnamese capital of Hanoi is buzzing with excitement following reported sightings of rare giant turtles in a downtown lake where thousands of pedestrians pass daily. And amateur video footage purportedly of the turtles, long believed to be nothing more than myth and legend, now has skeptics wondering whether the giant beasts really do exist. For years, people have reported sighting three giant turtles in Hanoi's Hoan Kiem Lake. The latest sighting, and perhaps one of the most credible, came on March 24, when passers-by caught a glimpse of the turtles as they surfaced to take in the spring air. An amateur cameraman caught the creatures' appearance on video, which subsequently aired on Vietnamese television. The station also claimed the turtles made a second appearance on April 5. Researchers who have been trying to get a glimpse of the turtles believe they could be the only ones of their kind in the world.
Stories about the mysterious creatures have been circulating for about 500 years, starting with the legend of King Le Loi and the giant turtle of Hoan Kiem Lake. According to legend, the gods gave Le Loi a magic sword, which helped him battle the Chinese invaders. Having freed Vietnam, the king and his courtiers were boating on the lake when a giant turtle arose, took the magic sword, then plunged to the depths and returned the blade to its divine owners. Since that time the lake's name has been "Ho Hoan Kiem, " which means "Lake of the Returned Sword. " The story is retold in thousands of schoolbooks, and in popular performances at Hanoi's water-puppet theatres. Mythology and science mix in the work of Hanoi National University's Professor Ha Dinh Duc, the world's foremost expert on the turtles of the Returned Sword Lake. "The Hoan Kiem turtle is the world's biggest fresh water turtle. It can measure 2 meters (6 1/2 feet) long and can weigh as much as 200 kilograms," said Professor Ha Dinh Duc of Hanoi National University.
Professor Duc has been studying the turtles for the past decade, sometimes in conjunction with international reptile specialists. Some biologists feel these turtles could be the same as a rare species found near Shanghai, China, but Professor Duc disagrees. "I've compared these with other fresh-water turtles elsewhere in the world and I see real differences. I hope further studies will show this is a new species, " he said. A Hoan Kiem turtle, found and preserved 30 years ago, is now displayed at a small temple on an island in the lake. The plaque tells visitors it is thought to be more than 500 years old -- old enough, in fact, to be the turtle of the legend. A comparison of the preserved turtle with images of the Shanghai species shows clear differences in coloration and head shape, supporting Dr. Duc's thesis that this could be a new species. Much remains unknown about these ancient monsters living in the center of downtown Hanoi -- their number, reproductive ability, origins, and especially, whether or not they're unique to the Lake of the Returned Sword.
"If we have co-operation from international experts and they determine this is a new species, it will be a significant contribution to world biological diversity. And since the turtles are right here in the middle of urban Hanoi, many people can easily come to see them, " Professor Duc said. Meanwhile, plans are afoot to clear the lake of pollution that could potentially harm the creatures, and the construction of an artificial beach has been proposed to facilitate breeding.
NEW BIRD FROM COLUMBIA
(OK YOU THINK OF A JOKE ABOUT AN ANTPITTA)
June 11, 1998 PHILADELPHIA (AP) -- Robert S. Ridgely was hiking down an Ecuadorean mountain path on atrip to record bird songs last November when he and a fellow ornithologist heard a strange sound --a call akin to an owl's hoot and a dog's bark. "He and I recognized right off the bat that this was something very peculiar that we heard in the distance," recalled Ridgely, director of the Centerfor Neotropical Ornithology at the Academy of Natural Sciences. What Ridgely, 52, and the young Ecuadorean Lelis Navarrete, heard and eventually saw high in the AndesMountains was the discovery of a lifetime -- a new bird species. "It didn't occur to me that something completely unknown was going toappear but in fact that's exactly what happened," Ridgely said. Once he saw the large bird with the unusual white facial markings, he knewright away that it was "one of the most distinctive new birds to be found in a while."
The academy was to formally announce the discovery Thursday and soonwill submit a description of the bird to a leading peer-reviewed ornithological journal, The Auk. The scientists will also name the bird. They have determined it is a species of Antpitta, a group of very reclusive,long-legged, non-migratory birds that hop on the forest floor, feeding onlarge insects. At 10 inches (25 cms), including its short tail, the bird is the second-largest known Antpitta, Ridgely said. Its most striking feature is abroad white facial stripe that arches below the eye, contrasting with a blackcrown. About one new bird a year is discovered. The find was unusual in that it occurred in a well-explored area near thePodocarpus National Park. "It's a remarkable bird and any discovery of a new species is trulyremarkable these days. There just aren't many left to find," said John W.Fitzpatrick, director of the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology in Ithaca,New York. With some 9,000 species in the world, Fitzpatrick said, only about one newbird a year is discovered. About 40 minutes after Ridgely and Navarrete heard the call from about ahalf-mile away, the bird suddenly started to sing within 50 feet of them. Ridgely, who did not have a camera with him, made a quick tape-recordingof the bird and played it back in hopes of eliciting a response. It worked. "The bird came crashing right back in front of me, right in the undergrowth." In January, a team set up nets to photograph and capture birds. Fourspecimens were sacrificed for scientific study. New species usually are very similar to previously known birds, Ridgely said. "That's where this new Antpitta jumps out as being really stunning. Notonly was it found in an area that is relatively well known, but it is so different," he said. Ridgely and other ornithologists have set up a foundation to raise money to buy land to protect the bird's habitat, much of which has been cleared for cattle grazing.
ANOTHER NEW SOUTH AMERICAN BIRD
RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil (AP) -- The scientists said its song was unlike any they had heard before. And when they hung nets to capture the bird, they found out why -- it was a species unknown to science. Researchers at the Federal University of Parana said the tiny, gray-black bird that they captured in 1997 also had a unique habitat: a marshy area inside the city of Curitiba, 420 miles southwest of Rio de Janeiro. Marcos Bornschein, Bianca Reinhert and Mauro Pichorim named their new bird, a member of the Scytalopus genus, the lowland tapaculo. They said its scientific description and name will be published later this year. A similar bird lives in the forest only a few miles away from where the newly discovered bird makes its home, but that bird has a different song and never wanders to the marshes. Similar birds also live in the Andes Mountains, more than 2, 000 miles westward. But closer study of the lowland tapaculo determined that 11 factors, from the shape of its feathers to its bone structure, were unique, Bornschein said. It measure about 4 inches long and weighs a half-ounce. Jose Fernando Pacheco, an ornithologist with the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, confirmed the finding. "The song is different and the type of terrain it inhabits is different, " he said. The lowland tapaculo is the second new bird species that Bornschein and Reinhert have discovered. Their first discovery is called Stymphalornis acupirostris but has no English name. It also makes its home in the same sort of marshy area where the lowland tapaculo lives.
TIE MY KANGAROO DOWN...
KAWAU ISLAND, New Zealand (CNN) -- A breed of Australian wallaby thought to be extinct for a century has turned up alive and well -- in New Zealand. DNA testing by Australian researchers shows that a group of Tamar wallabies on Kawau Island, north of Auckland, are descendants of a wallaby population that vanished from mainland South Australia early this century. It turns out that the wallabies -- which are similar to kangaroos -- were shipped from South Australia to New Zealand in the late 1880s by New Zealand's governor, Sir George Gray. The discovery presents an opportunity to re-establish the breed in Australia. And some New Zealanders won't be sorry to see them go. "They look cute -- they may be cuddly -- (but) they've got a big strong kick, and they eat everything that grows," said Dick Vritch of the New Zealand Department of Conservation. Indeed, the more than 2,000 Tamar wallabies on Kawau Island are endangering several native species of birds. (CZ OneList)
THE ONZA WHICH AIN`T
Finally the news that everyone has been suspecting for many years has been released. As predicted by Clinton Keeling (amongst others) in these very pages, the female onza shot in 1986 and examined by the ISC is no such thing - merely a malnourished female puma. Our standards of Gentlemanly behaviour preclude us from saying that we told you so!